Monday, December 16, 2013

'Madiba art' is unfashionable

Yuill Damaso's Night Watch
Predictably, when an image of Madiba’s corpse entered the public realm it wasn’t well received. Yuill Damaso’s contentious painting, Night Watch, which showed the late former president lying inert while political leaders performed an autopsy on him, caused a furore when it went on display at the Hyde Park shopping centre in 2010. The oil painting, rendered in a realistic manner echoing the artist’s source of inspiration – the Dutch master Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp – became headline news when it attracted a searing critique from the ANC.
“It is in bad taste, disrespectful and it is an insult and an affront to values of our society,” asserted senior party spokesman Jackson Mthembu.

Damaso had not intended to cause offence.
“I wanted to show that although Mandela was a hero, he was a mortal, a man nonetheless. I pictured him with his arm cut open to show that he was made of flesh and bones. We all have the potential to be like him, but we have to do something great (to achieve his status).”
Before the controversy had died down the artwork had a buyer: AngloGold Ashanti had put in a R400 000 bid, according to the artist. Damaso’s art appeared to be worth a lot more than the commercial galleries he had approached over the years had envisioned. He put their disinterest in his work to the fact that conceptual art is more highly prized. Undoubtedly, for as Mandela is highly regarded, the local gallery circuit haven't embraced art picturing the late leader. 'Madiba art', if you could call it that seems to cater for more populist tastes. It simply isn't fashionable in art circles, perhaps because it can't function as an elitist object and the 'sacredness' attached to it limits artists from dissecting it or challenging what it might represent. This may also account for gallerists desisting from 'profiting' from it - which is seen as almost vulgar and uncouth.
Steirn's photograph of Mandela

Night Watch was desirable for two reasons; its prominence in the media and the fact that it depicted a man who had become an iconic figure, representing and embodying the ethos of the South African miracle. Almost any works picturing this great leader tend to attract high prices; last week a photograph by the Australian photographer Adrian Steirn fetched a record R2 million from a New York dealer. The anonymous buyer stated that: “I am honoured to own what has already become an iconic image of one of the greatest statesmen the world has ever known. In a single frame the photographer has captured the essence of dignity, principle, conviction and courage in this great man from whose life’s work and dedication to a greater cause we all have much to learn, and by which I am inspired daily.”
As this statement suggests, people are willing to pay any price to possess objects that evoke the qualities attached to Madiba.

Perhaps in acquiring such works there is a sense that an individual or institution is able to affirm their support of the values he espouses and represents, as well as those that they wish to attain in their own existence.
In feeding a market for Madiba products, do those who purchase objects parading his likeness perpetuate the commercialisation and exploitation of his image and perhaps, by doing so, erode the values he stands for?

Despite the R400 000 offer for Night Watch, Damaso held on to it.
Was the artist holding out for a higher offer, which was expected following Madiba’s passing? Indeed, Damaso is now keen to part with the work, but mostly because it “has been heavy to have it in my possession. The painting is now quite sad, because he has gone.”
Like most South Africans, Damaso is deeply saddened by Madiba’s death. “His passing has given me the opportunity to step back and re-evaluate my life. I hope we take this time of mourning to re-examine ourselves and find the path he laid for us.”

There will always be an interest in any imagery that bears Mandela’s likeness, observes Marco Cianfanelli, the artist responsible for the striking 10m steel national monument depicting the late leader at the site in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands where he was captured in 1962, and the Shadow Boxer sculpture that was recently erected near Chancellor House, the building where Mandela and Oliver Tambo had law offices in Joburg’s inner city.

Cianfanelli's sculpture at the capture site
In developing the designs for both public sculptures Cianfanelli took inspiration from photographs of his subjects. “I never got to meet him; there was no formal platform for portraiture, so I had to look into the archive.”
The capture site sculpture attracts 300 visitors a day and has become a tourist destination that generates an income for locals, according to Christopher Till, the director of the Apartheid Museum and the individual who conceived of the project with Cianfanelli and raised funds to realise it.

Cianfanelli's Mandela sculpture at the capture site would always have been an iconic image, as any image of Mandela might be, however, in his unique rendering he seems to have elevated it from the banal, transforming it into an iconic symbol - albeit a populist one.  A photograph of the sculpture became the signature image for a Nelson Mandela exhibition titled From Prisoner to President that showed in Paris this year at the Hôtel de Ville, as part of the South African French Seasons.
"Paris was covered in images of the sculpture," observed Till.

The seemingly insatiable hunger for images of Mandela might be rooted in the fact that during the years he was incarcerated no images were permitted to be circulated or published in newspapers. As a result this heightened interest about his appearance, reaching a climax when he was released from Victor Verster prison in 1990.

His absence, now brought on by his death, will no doubt serve to reignite or sustain people’s desire to consume images of him or works that bear his likeness. The morning after his death was announced and South Africans began to make their grief more public; many flocked to sculptures like Cianfanelli’s Shadow Boxer, leaving flowers, wreaths and lit candles. These works will now serve as unofficial memorials. But the ethics surrounding them may still persist; in terms of who will profit from them and perhaps even whether they are deemed 'acceptable' - will his image and its reproduction thereof remain a sacred act?

Cianfanelli produced a series of editioned maquettes of the popular capture site sculpture, which have become quite valuable, but he doesn't want to profit from them.
“It is such tricky terrain. I believe that anything connected to Mandela should only be released to the public if it has heritage value and the funds it generates will go towards something of value that is to the public's benefit. I don't believe in commercialisation for one's own good,” says Cianfanelli.. - an edited version of this article was first published in The Sunday Independent, December 8, 2013. 

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